Sterling Jewelers, the Kay and Jared retail-jewelry conglomerate now facing a massive class-action arbitration case, on Thursday dismissed hundreds of former female employees’ allegations that the company fostered a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Calling those accusations a “purported parallel universe,” the chairman of Signet — Sterling’s parent company — and other top executives spoke publicly for the first time since The Washington Post reported last week on the allegations. About 69,000 women have claimed in a private arbitration case that Sterling Jewelers discriminated against them in pay and promotion practices.
As part of that case, hundreds of former male and female employees submitted sworn statements alleging that they had seen or experienced sexual harassment or discrimination at company events or in Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry stores.
“The portrait of Signet painted in recent media reports is irreconcilable to me with a company that I have served as director and chairman for more than five years,” Chairman Todd Stitzer said on a call with analysts Thursday morning. “We have taken seriously the allegations of sexual harassment prepared in connection with the pending arbitration matter, many of which go back decades.”
Stitzer said the company’s female workforce — including 68 percent of its store-management staff and 33 percent of its executives — is a “direct result of our steadfast commitment to practices that focus on all aspects of the employment experience at our company.”
“This is the portrayal of Signet which our board and management team and our valued team members recognize as their own,” he added. “Not the purported parallel universe represented by others.”
Stitzer said 43 class members had alleged in sworn statements that “they experienced any form of sexual harassment” — a small percentage, he noted, of the 69,000 women alleging pay and promotion disparities in the arbitration — “and many of these allegations pertained to incidents that purportedly occurred from the 1990s to 2005.”
“This is a complex matter that cannot be reduced to a simple sound bite or clever phrase,” he said. “The case will be determined primarily by statistical analysis, not salacious claims.”
Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein law firm and lead counsel for the case, told The Post on Thursday said the claim that only 43 women had alleged sexual harassment is “simply untrue.”
“Nearly half of the women who have issued (roughly 250) sworn statements have alleged sexually demeaning conduct by executives of the company, and that doesn’t even account for the untold number who were intimidated into keeping silent about the treatment they endured,” Sellers said.
“Furthermore, much of this conduct took place at mandatory meetings and in public places where other women became involuntarily aware of it,” he added. “It seems that Mr. Stitzer is the one living in a parallel universe, one where systemic pay and promotion discrimination and behavior demeaning to women are permissible.”
Sellers also took issue with the company’s description of the ongoing case, which is expected to have a wide-ranging class hearing next year.
“Sterling knew it was systematically paying women less than men and continues to use the same pay practices today. The company has tolerated conduct profoundly demeaning to women and still refuses to acknowledge its role in this,” Sellers said.
“The fact that Sterling is trying to split hairs over the legal definition of sexual harassment rather than acknowledging the widespread mistreatment of its employees is indicative of the problem.”
In its Thursday call, Signet did not respond to or refute the specific allegations raised by men and women in hundreds of statements filed since the arbitration began in 2008. But Stitzer said “the allegations of sexual harassment focused on leadership were denied under oath.”
Signet chief executive Mark Light, named as one of the executives accused in arbitration filings of having sex with female employees and promoting women based upon how they responded to sexual demands, spoke about the company’s performance Thursday but said nothing about the case.
Stitzer said the board had known of the allegations against Light when Signet, based in Akron, Ohio, named him chief executive in 2014. The board, Stitzer added, had “reviewed the available information, the time frames involved and the context in which it was offered” before agreeing to the promotion for Light, the son of former Sterling chief executive Nate Light.
The company’s stock climbed 8 percent following the call, although its share price remains near a four-year low. Sales fell 5 percent in the last quarter of 2016 to $2.2 billion, below analysts’ expectations, executives said.
Stitzer, a former chief executive of the British candy company Cadbury, also said that the board had “become much more actively involved with the business” during its “very challenging year” and that it will stay involved.
Saying the company had identified “areas where we can further improve,” Stitzer said the board will form a new committee “focused on respect in the workplace,” led by the company’s female directors. It will focus on programs and policies supporting the advancement and development of female employees.
That panel will appoint an independent consultant to review “policies regarding equal opportunity and workplace expectations,” including non-harassment training, harassment reporting and investigation, and policies aimed at combating retaliation from targets of complaints.
The committee, Stitzer said, will also establish an independent ombudsman’s office “to provide confidential advice” to employees, and offer options and strategies to assist them in the resolution of workplace concerns.
The company struck out at other scandals plaguing the company’s finances, including claims that a risky amount of its jewelry is bought on credit and allegations that the company had swapped out diamonds when jewelry was brought in for cleaning. The company disputed both claims.
In a 2015 decision to grant class-action status to the women, the case’s arbitrator, Kathleen A. Roberts, wrote that the employees’ testimony includes references to “soliciting sexual relations with women (sometimes as a quid pro quo for employment benefits), and creating an environment at often-mandatory Company events in which women are expected to undress publicly, accede to sexual overtures and refrain from complaining about the treatment to which they have been subjected.”
“For the most part Sterling has not sought to refute this evidence,” Roberts wrote. Instead, she wrote, “Sterling argues that it is inadmissible, irrelevant and insufficient to establish a corporate culture that demeans women.”